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Art Talk

How to Look at Paintings

Art Vernacular

Art Vernacular

Understanding common art vernacular, helps you to see how a painting is literally constructed, and this in turn will reveal how an artist's work can evoke such strong emotions. Understanding the basics of composition, tone, three-dimensional representation, and applied technique deepens your enjoyment during a museum or gallery visit.


Composition is the design of the painting. The artist uses lines and shapes to direct your attention to a focal point. Your eye is drawn naturally to the part of the picture that the artist wants you to look at first.

Composition also has to do with recognizable patterns. By grouping figures, objects, or landscape elements, patterns are formed on the surface. An example of this is the triangular pattern, a form exploited in the Renaissance by painters like Leonardo da Vinci. This form, often referred to as the Renaissance triangle, gives a feeling of stability and focuses your attention on the figures in the center.

The edges of the pattern lead your eye around the picture. Some patterns give a painting a sense of stillness and harmony; others give the picture movement and energy. Diagonal lines, for example, instill a feeling of energy and force.

How the subject of the painting is organized within the picture will create a sense of deep or shallow space. For example, how close to the picture plane are the figures or objects? Are they set back, distancing the viewer from the scene, or do they seem to project into the viewer's space? Think of the picture plane as a sheet of glass in front of the picture (it is actually the literal surface of the picture). Objects seem smaller, the further away they are.


Tone relates to the range between the lightest and the darkest parts of the painting. The balance of this range is sometimes called by the Italian term chiaroscuro. In some paintings, the range will be very close; this is called a narrow range of tone. In others, it can be quite dramatic; this is called a wide range of tone.

As a rule, artists will use the most contrasting tones for the areas they most want to show up. Light tones are used to focus attention on the main objects, although sometimes the reverse is used with dark against light. The result is similar though: to make certain areas stand out in the painting using contrast. Tone is used to create depth. Sometimes the light in a painting is directional, like a spotlight; and sometimes it is diffuse, like daylight.

Color, on the other hand, can suggest mood. A predominantly blue painting might seem quiet and reflective, or even melancholy, because of the use of cool colors. We still sometimes say someone's got the blues when they're miserable! In contrast, hot colors, such as red, can give a feeling of confidence and energy or anger.

Landscape use color and light to suggest space. This technique is called atmospheric or aerial perspective. Colors become bluer and fade, often becoming lighter to suggest recession. Hot colors, particularly reds, push things towards the viewer, and this works with figures and objects too. Colors and lines will also become more blurred in the distance, which not only helps to give a sense of recession, but also allows the spectator to focus on the most important part of the painting (usually the foreground).

Three-dimensional Representation

Figures and landscapes can be made to look three-dimensional on a two-dimensional surface in a number of ways, for example, by the way they are drawn. This is called delineation.

Many paintings use tone to convey three-dimensions. This is called modeling. But not all artists use light and shade to model three-dimensional form. Cubism uses a completely different system, which tries to show more than one view of an object in the same picture. Think of, for example, the works of Picasso.

A common way of indicating distance and depth is to use linear perspective, which involves straight lines receding to a vanishing point. Linear perspective makes use of a point, or points, on the horizon to which all lines perpendicular to the picture plane recede. Sometimes the vanishing point will be obvious, but if it is not, don't spend ages looking for it! Buildings, or similar objects with straight lines, make it easier to find the vanishing point.

In some cases, like abstract painting, there will not be a vanishing point. The vanishing point in real life will always be at eye-level on the horizon, but the horizon can be very high (giving us the feeling that we are looking down on the scene) or very low (giving us the feeling that we are looking up).


How the artist applies his paint is an important element in the overall effect. Is the brushwork very detailed or applied very sketchily? The latter is called a painterly technique. Has he or she used big, thick brushes or not used brushes at all? Paint can be applied with a palette knife, fingers or even dripped straight on to the surface, all of which creates a very different effect. Different mediums (oil, acrylic, watercolor, pencil, pen, or ink) will make the work look very different too.

The elements considered here are essential parts of any painting, and looking at art in this way deepens your appreciation for the effort the artist has put into the art. Especially when you think of why an artist has done something in a particular way, you can begin to understand his or her thoughts and feelings while creating this beautiful work.

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